Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Happy Earth Day, everyone! Today we celebrate the planet we live on, and to that end we have many items for you to explore, from Earth Day specific, to activity-based ways to enjoy the Earth, including camping, hiking, and gardening.
On a more somber note, this year we mark the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, and a coalition has formed to highlight the importance of avoiding species extinction in the future. This effort is led by Joel Greenberg, a research associate with both the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Chicago Field Museum. Greenberg has written a book about the passenger pigeon, A feathered river across the sky : the passenger pigeon's flight to extinction, which you can place on hold, as it is currently checked out at this writing. Next Monday, Greenberg will address the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo, at an event which is free and open to the public.
A feathered river across the sky : the passenger pigeon's flight to extinction
Much like Mike Tyson’s greatest fights, Undisputed Truth, the autobiography by the controversial boxer is shocking and brutal, but despite the shock, it is hard to turn away from. Written with the assistance of well-respected coauthor Larry Sloman, Undisputed Truth offers a raw, no holds barred look at the high-flying story of Mike Tyson so far. From his incredibly difficult childhood (with shockingly little parental involvement, Tyson was left to survive on the gritty streets of Brooklyn, New York on his own and was committing armed robbery as a very young child) to training under the tutelage, and basically being adopted by, boxing coach Cus D'Amato as a teenager, to boxing world champion, convicted rapist, celebrity, drug addict, and notorious ear-biting villain, Undisputed Truth is a truly wild ride. The book does little to dissuade readers that Tyson has been anything but a truly despicable person for most of his life, but the raw and honest way that Tyson talks about his life and confronts his demons is admirable and by the end of the book you can’t help but root for him and his redemption as a human being and a sports figure.
In journalism, a stringer is a writer/correspondent who isn’t formally employed by any one news organization, but rather produces articles that may be shopped around to many would be publishers, and more often than not, may actually end up being bought by none. Stringers usually cover their own expenses, provide their own support and go to places where established, affiliated reporters do not. The term itself is of unsure origin. Some say that it was coined because these writers are paid by the word and therefore would tend to “string” together words to increase their payout. Others believe that it refers to these journalists’ potential employers who would “string them along” into believing that a permanent contractual relationship was to be had just around the corner from the next article that they wrote.
Making a living by writing anything professionally is tough enough. Deciding to do it by becoming a stringer takes a certain character; one that is determined to succeed and driven by a thirst for adventure and non-stop action. It is also useful to have a very high tolerance level for repeatedly risking everything in search of that exceptional, preferably exclusive, story. All of these traits are displayed in abundance by Anjan Sundaram in his wonderful first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo.
In the summer of 2005, Sunderam decides to leave behind his postgraduate studies in mathematics at Yale, as well as a lucrative job offer from Goldman Sachs, and instead to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why such an extreme exercise in life re-orientation? Although an explanation is provided, it is not very convincing. Rather it seems to be as much due to whimsy and a bad case of ants-in-the-pants as anything else. And why the Congo? Simply due to the shear coincidence that his bank teller tells him that her brother-in-law and family, whom he has never met, live there and would agree to put him up in their home during his stay.
Using his one-way ticket, he arrives and his previously calm predictable world completely disintegrates into the uncertainties of day-to-day Congolese existence; the latter occurring with the chaotic and frequently violent state of Congolese politics and social problems as a backdrop. After many mishaps and struggles along the way to becoming the journalist he sees himself as being, he lucks out by landing a position as a stringer with the Associated Press reporting on the never ending merry-go-round of political corruption and exploitation that are the trademarks of the country’s history.
Success begins to shine upon his efforts, and helps seal his commitment to his new life on the African continent. His story about the Pygmy tribes in Congo’s rain forest wins a Reuters journalism award. His Associated Press editor acknowledges that he himself also began his career as a stringer in Congo. Editor and writer form a bond. Other opportunities present themselves, and Sundaram’s writings have since appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times as well as the Chicago Tribune.
I first heard about “Stringer” when the author was interviewed by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s Daily Show in early January of this year. However, be assured: This work is no light-hearted, comedic romp. Sundaram’s writing is crisp, searing, and bursting with visual details that make it unforgettable for the reader. (One reviewer used the word “luscious” to describe it, and I could not agree more.)
It is very rare to find a truly engrossing page-turner, much less one that is a work of quality non-fiction. This is just such a rarity.
Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo
What do you know about “the other Ellis Island?” Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island was the port of U.S. entry for thousands of Asians seeking a new life in America. Russell Freedman’s new book: Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain tells the story of those who passed through, those who were detained, and those who never made it any further into the U.S. before returning to their country of origin.
Especially poignant are the poems that were carved into and painted on barracks walls: “Nights are long, the pillow cold; who can comfort my solitude? . . . Shouldn’t I just return home and learn to plow the fields?” Discovered by a maintenance worker long after the facility closed, the poems have been preserved and incorporated into the public areas of this National Historic Landmark.
Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain
Though it certainly doesn't seem like it, spring - and the end of ice, snow, and freezing temperatures - is around the corner! Enjoy the warmer days and make good on your New Year's resolution to get fit by running. The Kalamazoo area is host to several races this spring: Kal-Haven Trail Run (April 5), Consumers Sunburst Run/Walk (April 26), Kalamazoo Marathon (May 4), Girls on the Run (May 22), and Kalamazoo Klassic (June 14). If you're interested in running a race, you can join a local training group through the Kalamazoo Area Runners or Gazelle Sports to keep you on track. And don't forget to check out the library's collection of resources on running!
Runner's World magazine - The most popular running periodical, available in print at KPL and as a digital magazine download through the library's Zinio portal.
The Beginning Runner's Handbook by Ian MacNeill - This is a great starter manual that provides basic information on the science and psychology of exercise, choosing shoes and clothing, technique and form, safety and injury prevention, as well as a 13 week training program with stretches and exercises.
Complete Book of Running by Runner's World - This thorough guide covers everything from nutrition to cross training, and includes a marathon training program.
The Little Red Book of Running by Scott Douglas - This small book contains 250 tips for running further, faster, safer, and more frequently.
Proceeds from the Consumers Sunburst Run are donated to the Oshtemo Friends of the Parks, which in turn helps support Oshtemo Library's Movies Under the Stars summer movie series at Oshtemo Township Park.
Beginning Runner's Handbook
You may know Walter Kirn from the novels and short stories he has written, but it is more likely you have heard of him because of the movies Up in the Air starring George Clooney and Thumbsucker that are based on his novels of the same name. Since I spend a lot of time reading book reviews, I know he is also a hotshot reviewer.
Now he has another claim to fame; manipulated dupe of impostor and murderer Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller.
Desperate for money as a struggling writer who had gotten in too deep buying a ranch in Montana, he agreed to drive a disabled dog from Montana to New York City to aid in its adoption by Clark Rockefeller, member of the immensely wealthy Rockefeller family. Kirn needed the money and was hoping to maybe find in this eccentric person a subject to write about or base a character on in a future novel.
This was the beginning of a long, bizarre relationship during which Kirn actually decides not to write about Rockefeller in deference to their friendship. But this all changes when his friend Clark is brought up on murder charges and investigations start to reveal that the whole relationship has been a string of lies.
You will be stunned by what Christian Gerhartsreiter was able to get away with in Kirn's new memoir/true crime book Blood Will Out.
Blood Will Out
In this book we received just last year, Eric Chaline indicates that his survey of iconic machines goes back not "to the invention of the hand ax or wheel, but begins in 1801, with the first successful application of automation to weaving, which had until then been the preserve of the skilled artisan." Among the 50 machines profiled with brief historical treatments and artwork are the Singer sewing machine, Underwood No. 1 typewriter, diesel engine, Kodak camera, Westinghouse AC system, Model T Ford, Black and Decker electric drill, Saturn V rocket, Magnox nuclear reactor, GE top-loading washing machine, Atari 2600, Sony Walkman, IBM PC 5150, and the Hubble Telescope. This is informative and entertaining at the same time. I was hoping to see my old friend/nemesis the Regiscope included, but didn't find it. Maybe it will be in the next edition.
Fifty machines that changed the course of history
Copernicus threw us for a loop by putting the sun at the center and us off to the side. Kant (pronounced like “font”) changed the way we perceive the world by putting the mind at the center and the external world off to the side. For us to perceive reality and know about it, reality must conform to our minds—not the other way around.
What? Let’s back up. In the 1700s there were two major schools of thought. One, the so called empiricism of Locke and Hume: that the external, physical world is “out there,” that when we are looking at a tree we are pretty much looking at an “exact copy” of the tree that exists outside our perception of it; in other words, our eyeballs are windows to reality and our senses/mind represent things accurately. On the other hand, the so called idealism of George Berkeley: that the external, physical world is a baseless assumption, that we don’t really need it, that all the things we perceive are actually “in our mind” so to speak, impressions directly implanted by God (cut out the middle man!—matter). Sure it sounds odd, but consider: when we are dreaming it seems like there is an external reality “out there”—but there’s not, it’s all in our head.
The genius of Kant at age 47 was to bring together the two schools of thought; both are right and both are wrong. Yes there is a reality, an external world that exists completely separate from our perception of it (separate from dogs’ perception of it, whales’ perception of it). But the mind recreates reality, filters reality, represents reality in a particular human way (space and time are even filters of the mind!). By the time our minds go to work on it, who knows what’s really out there—we know nothing about what’s out there. That’s how Kant blew everyone’s mind. He suggested that when we refer to “reality,” we are really talking about the world as we perceive it. When we refer to the external world, we are really talking about the unknowable, unperceivable; metaphysical speculation, God, freedom, beauty—stuff like that. The point of his book, as he says, was to “do away with knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
Kant shook my world and I hope he shakes yours. Check out my book display on the 1st floor of the downtown, Central Library—IgeekPhilosophy. (Also, follow my personal blog at jesusmeetskant.blogspot.com which of course is not affiliated with KPL).
Critique of Pure Reason
Have you heard of an animal called the tapir, but have little or no idea what it looks like, much less what it’s up to on our fair earth? Well, The Tapir Scientist is just the book to correct this unfortunate state of affairs! With text by Sy Montgomery and photographs by Nic Bishop, it explores the world of this unusual looking creature, whose closest living relatives happen to be the rhinoceros and horse.
The focus is upon the field investigation work of Pati Medici, an animal conservation scientist who is one of the founders of the Institute for Ecological Research in Brazil. It is dedicated to helping endangered animals such as tapirs survive.
The tapir actually existed in prehistoric times and surprisingly, its appearance has not changed much over 12 million years. What has changed is where they live. Once roaming all over Europe, Asia and both North and South America, their natural habitat has shrunk to parts of South and Central America, as well as Southeast Asia. It is South America’s largest mammal, and there are four distinct species all of which are endangered.
Tapirs are rather solitary, nocturnal animals who are difficult to see, much less count, capture, study and track as Pati and her team sets out to do. However, they persevere knowing that their work is crucial, since tapirs play a major role in propagating forest plant life. Being fruit loving herbivores, they eat, digest and then let’s just say “plant” seeds from one area to another. Without them, forests and all the animal life found within may very well disappear.
This book is part of a series by the Montgomery and Bishop team called “Scientists in the Field.” Author Sy Montgomery has taken on many challenges in the past including swimming with piranhas and chasing gorillas among other things. Nic Bishop is a renowned nature photographer. His photos have captured many animals in their full, natural glory. Fun fact: Nic used to live in the Winchell area of Kalamazoo for many years before relocating to New Zealand.
KPL owns a number of titles in the “Scientists in the Field” series, including The Tarantula Scientist, Snake Scientist and Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, as well as a few others. Both author and photographer have won many awards, and their works have been noted as being distinguished examples of the best science books for youth. (Although as an animal loving adult, I too found it to be engaging.)
With it’s lively, information laden text and beautiful pictures, The Tapir Scientist is a wonderful Brazilian animal travelogue!
The Tapir Scientist
About twenty years ago, I stumbled on a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of the investigation into the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers, casting doubt on whether the teenagers were guilty of murder or just guilty of wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and enjoying horror films.
Over the years, the documentary filmmakers who made the original Paradise Lost have produced two other films: Paradise Lost: Revelations and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. These documentaries and other information about the case convinced some high profile people like: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to lobby for the release of these teenagers.
After a bizarre plea deal, they were released on August 19, 2011 after serving over eighteen years for crimes they possibly didn’t commit.
Now, Damien Echols, who was on death row for those eighteen years, tells his story in Life After Death. Watch the documentaries and read his book and decide who you believe.
Life After Death